Time for T

This week the government published the T Level action plan, which promises a much-needed boost for technical and vocational education.

While the new qualifications could affect the future of thousands of young people, T Levels seem to have gone under the radar a little – perhaps because of a less than eye-catching launch. The plan is described as ‘an ambitious framework to support young people and adults to secure a lifetime of sustained skilled employment and meet the needs of our growing and rapidly changing economy’. As headlines go that’s almost on a par with ‘This Is Why A Convenience Store In Walsall Closed This Morning’ and equally unlikely to qualify as clickbait anytime soon.

But improving technical education really should be big news. The new T Levels will develop work-related knowledge and skills, delivered in the classroom, workshop or a simulated work environment. They’ll include a substantial work placement and offer progression to skilled occupations and higher levels of technical study. Get it right, and a whole raft of 16- to 19-year-olds who don’t want to do A levels will be able to succeed like never before.

So why aren’t we celebrating? It’s not through a lack of ideas, but alternatives to traditional ‘academic’ education never quite take off. Something wrong with the implementation, the employer consultation or the sales pitch means they founder and become second-class options, despite serving a large proportion of learners exceedingly well.

Instead of an inspiring choice of vocational qualifications, we’re left with tragic gravestones for teenage initiatives no longer with us (TVEI (1983-1997) GNVQs (1992-2007)) and long-forgotten terms like ‘lines of learning’ and ‘range statements’. Even the most recent innovations - University Technical Colleges - are in poor health and may yet be the latest victims of successive failures in technical and vocational education policy that reach back decades.

In contrast, apprenticeships are in fine fettle. And they’re changing, too. I attended a conference a few weeks ago which examined the future for higher- and degree-level apprenticeships. There was no shortage of optimism and good news stories from the policymakers and educators on the platform, and it was hard to argue with one speaker who stated that the balance of paid work and learning should be ‘an easy sell’. But, almost in the same breath, we were discussing a dearth of good quality careers education in schools, the possible damage done to the image of technical education by the LearnDirect scandal, and delays to the approval of qualifications standards that mean universities are developing these new qualifications in the dark. Not such an easy sell perhaps.

If technical and vocational education is going to thrive, the new T Levels must achieve what none of their predecessors have managed: to be seen as a first-choice for able young people, and to convince employers, parents and further and higher education institutions that they have an inherent value. Let’s hope they do and that they become qualifications to shout about. After all these years, perhaps it’s finally time for T?